Hydraulic, corporate mining practices

The hydraulic mining water cannon puts out a stream with a force of 200 lb. of pressure per square inch.

Hydraulic mining mows the mountain side down, trees and all.

The LaHood operation uses this technique, developed around 1850.

Josh LaHood, the corporate mining baron’s son.

Water cannons strip the hills of topsoil, making the gold beneath easier to find.

The LaHood operation provides jobs for a multi-ethnic, local work force.

We see the mining and devastated landscape ...

... from Preacher’s point of view.

He critically observes the erosion and ...

... falling trees.

Community mining practices

Community miners work along their segment of a creekbed...

... panning gold by hand...

... and working side by side.

Preacher helps Barret find his gold nugget...

... while women maintain the homes.


Pale Rider
Environmental politics,
Eastwood style

by Joseph K. Heumann and
Robin L. Murray

They just literally mow the mountains away, you know, the trees and everything… all that was outlawed in California some years ago, and they still do it in Montana and a few places.” (Eastwood quoted in “turnerclassicmovies.com”).[1]

It was outlawed way back, even before ecological concerns were as prevalent as they are today. So we play on that in the film. It’s kind of an ecological statement. (Eastwood quoted in Frayling 135).

Instead of focusing only on classic western conflicts, Clint Eastwood’s 1985 remake of Shane, Pale Rider highlights and critiques the consequences of 1850s-1880’s corporate mining and, perhaps, its continued repercussions into the 1980s. Unlike any other Eastwood Western, Pale Rider provides its audience with a clear vision of the environmental horrors hydraulic mining causes, even including a detailed description of the technique, while showing the devastating results of a great engineering feat. Deep into the film, Josh LaHood, the corporate miner’s son (Christopher Penn) explains how he and his men are able to thrust 200 hundred pounds of pressure per square inch of water at the side of a mountain, a process called hydraulic mining.

Josh LaHood describes the process to fourteen-year-old Megan Wheeler, a prospector’s daughter. His detailed description of this mining technique engineered around 1850 is juxtaposed with images of falling trees and soil devastated by the water shooting out of monitors, the water cannons used to strip the hills of topsoil and growth to make the gold beneath easier to find. According to Josh LaHood,

“About three quarters of a mile upstream we diverted half of Cobalt Creek. See it flows through a ditch along the contours of the slope and ends up about a hundred yards up yonder….It flows into … a three foot pipe and then flows down slope real steep. And then that narrows to a two-foot pipe. And then a one foot pipe. You see all the time that water’s flowing downstream, it picks up speed. And it picks up force by going into the thinner pipes….By the time the water reaches the monitor, I’ve got about 200 pounds of pressure per square inch. I can blast that gravel out of that cliff and then it washes into the bed and then it travels right through the sluice.”

While looking at the land around her, Megan tells Josh, “It looks like hell.” But Josh is only interested in the product of the degradation: “You know I can get 20 tons of gravel a day in this river,” he says. Seconds later, while the audience watches hydraulic monitors shooting water at the cliffs above the Yuba River, in an obvious parallel to what is happening to the landscape, Josh attempts to rape Megan. Josh fails only because Preacher, Clint Eastwood’s character, saves her.

This scene from Pale Rider introduces one of its most important themes: the exploitation of the environment and of those most connected to it. Although this theme is prevalent mining films like How Green Was My Valley, it is missing in any other Eastwood Western. In fact, Pale Rider is the only film directed by Eastwood that focuses on such an issue. Pale Rider not only examines how the environment can be exploited, it also takes the time to demonstrate a better way, an alternative to the absolute destruction of large scale corporate mining centered around the fact of hydraulic mining. Just as Preacher saves Megan, the individual miners, “tin pans,” can save the land from LaHood, the mining baron, and his environmentally devastating methods.

Pale Rider, however, not only problematizes corporate mining techniques, suggesting that the corporation should be obliterated. It provides a viable solution to the consequences of hydraulic mining—individual tin panning in a cooperative community seeking to plant roots and raise families. In contrast to LaHood and his greed for gold, for individual miners like Hull Barret and Spider Conway, “Gold ain’t what [they’re] about” (Pale Rider). But the film goes further, offering a political solution to the environmental destruction threatened by hydraulic mining interests.

This solution in Pale Rider has not received any detailed examination. Extreme violence is the ultimate solution offered in Pale Rider, and while it is couched in mythological terms similar to High Plains Drifter, the inclusion of Hull Barret in the mayhem and killing keeps the environmental argument grounded in the here and now and provides for an alternative to the “progressive” model of the Western, as defined by Richard Slotkin. Instead, the resolution of Pale Rider harks back to The Outlaw Josie Wales (1976) where, according to Slotkin, Josie forgives his enemy with the claim,

“All of us died a little in that damn war” (633).

It also prefigures the anti-revenge themes in Eastwood’s critically acclaimed Unforgiven (1992) and Mystic River (2003). Although violence does provide “regeneration” (Slotkin’s word) in Pale Rider, it ultimately serves both a working class community and the natural world that sustains it.

Brief history of hydraulic mining

According to Ken Huie, a park ranger in Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park,

“Hydraulic mining was born and raised here in California….And no matter what you think of the result, it was a tremendous engineering feat” (Keister).

Huie oversees a park in the Sierra Nevada mountain range where the topography wears the mark of hydraulic mining from the 1850s to the 1880s, a mining technique so effective it was used in areas all over the western United States. According to Edwin Kiester, Jr.,

“Hydraulic mining applied a simple method familiar to all who’ve used a garden hose. Direct a forceful stream of water at the earth, and it will carve a ditch and carry away loosened soil.”

To create a large scale mining system,

“Engineers built a network of reservoirs, lakes, ditches and flumes extending as far as 40 miles to catch every precious drop of rain or Sierra snowmelt. Propelled by gravity along a vertical drop of up to 500 feet, the captured waters converged into a single, powerful stream. Then they were fed into water cannons trained on the gold-bearing hillside” (Kiester).

 In Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, these cannons are on display. Huie explains,

“A single monitor [water cannon] with an eight-inch nozzle like this could direct 16,000 gallons of water a minute….It could tear away 4000 cubic yards of earth from the hillside every day” (quoted in Kiester).

And debris resulting from such destructive mining was dumped into the Yuba river, so tainted water flowed into the Feather River, the Sacramento and even San Francisco Bay (Kiester). The Yuba River became so contaminated that

“The mine’s operator, North Bloomfield Gravel Mining, lost a lawsuit in January 1884 for polluting the Yuba River with tailings that caused massive floods in previous years” (Kiester).

It seems self-evident, then, that hydraulic mining hurt not only the environment—the mountains bared by water—but also the economic welfare of those flooded out by the dammed rivers and streams.

In 1850, Edward G. Buffum, a member of the Seventh Regiment of the New York State Volunteers who spent six months in the gold mines, saw hydraulic mining as a way to provide such economic development,

“to offer to the oppressed and down-trodden of the whole world an asylum, and a place whereby honest industry, which will contribute as much to our wealthy as their prosperity; they can build themselves happy homes and live like freemen” (138).

According to Buffum, hydraulic mining offered

“an immense field for the investment of capital throughout the world, and for the employment of a large portion of its labouring [sic] population” (141).

Continued: Big guys against little guys in Pale Rider

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